Today’s music buyers will never know the joys of a good “Cut-Out” bin…

I’ve always loved buying records. My record collection is large (though not as large as some, I’m sure), and about 80 percent of it were purchased at regular prices. But I’d say a good 10-12% of it came from cut-out bins.

According to the Wikipedia entry, “In the recording industry, a cut-out refers to a deeply discounted or remaindered copy of an LP, 45 RPM single, cassette tape, Compact Disc, or other item.”  Yes, you can still occasionally find cut-outs of CD’s or DVD’s, but most of the time, you’re more likely to find used copies than actual cut-outs. Cut-outs are easy to spot – they have a notch or a hole…um, well, literally cut out of the packaging, whether it’s an album or CD case, or a drill hole through the label part of a 45 or a cassette case.

When I was a kid,  Ben Franklin in Utica used to sell 99-cent packs of cut-out 45s – they came sealed in a plastic bag, and were on the top hooks of the record rack at the store, with a paper seal proclaiming “SIX 45s for JUST 99 cents!” or something like that – this is when the average price of a current 45 was 69 cents. I bought a lot of these as a kid, when my allowance was a mere $1 a week. And occasionally, if I was exceptionally good in school or doing my chores, or had been sick, my mom or step-dad would get me one too.

Now, don’t get me wrong – you rarely (ok, almost NEVER) found actual big hits in these bargain bags, being as they were sealed and you couldn’t check out what you were buying, but I found my share of little gems, and a few little hits too. Racking my mind right now, nearly a half-century later, only one title jumps out at me that I got from these bags, a song called “Off And Running” by The Mindbenders – it was on Fontana Records and was part of the “To Sir With Love” soundtrack; the band had appeared in the film as well. Played that song to death I loved it so much. And it had been the “flip side” of an actual minor hit, “It’s Getting Harder All The Time“. For the record, we’ll have a look at “flip-side” another time.

As I got older, and as the 1970s turned into the 1980s and the record industry started to become the bloated, greedy, and corrupt industry it is now (IMHO, of course, heh heh), the various labels would press millions of copies of albums and ship them out proclaiming they were “platinum” (for an album, that’s 1 Million copies) on release. The RIAA would give them their Platinum award, only to have hundreds of thousands of copies shipped back unsold. The labels would take their loss on paper and dump them in the cutout bin. Good for the labels – tax writeoff – and good for the consumers – cheap albums. My mother freaked out one day when I spent almost $150 of holiday gift money on records, most of them from the cut-out bins.  Were they all good albums? Well, no. But when you could grab the soundtracks from bad films like “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Thank God It’s Friday” for $3 a pop, when they originally sold for between $15-$20 a couple years earlier, they were worth having to me…now. Hey, I’d always wanted both of them anyway…and yes, I can be a musical masochist, ask my wife…heh heh…

Cut-out bins were also the place for discoveries. For every clunker album or CD I’ve paid a buck or two for in a cut out bin, I usually found five or six that were really really good. This was especially true when CD’s began popping up in the bins, for $2-3 bucks each – I still treasure CD’s I found in the bins in the late 80s-early 90s by Truth Inc., Natasha’s Brother, Latitude, Judson Spence, and of course, New Monkees (about which I will point out two things – 1, I already had the LP of it, and 2, even though the show was one of the worst TV shows ever, the music was really well done. So There!), among many many others.

But in the summer of either 1985 or 1986, can’t remember which, I hit the MOTHERLODE. Really.

I was living in Lancaster, Ohio, and the discount chain Hecks opened a new store out in the boonies end of town, right next door to Lancaster Cinema on Sheridan Drive. It was a 10 minute walk from our apartment, and they had everything. But mostly, they had the all time best cut out bin EVER!!!

My mom and I walked down opening weekend, and the place was mobbed. And tucked away in the front left corner of the store was a small electronics and music section. And the centerpiece of this section was a gigantic bin of cutouts. And these weren’t just no-sale albums by unknown artists, either – although most of them were at least five to ten years old at the time, most of them were legitimate minor hit albums a few years earlier. And from opening day until they got rid of most of them, they were selling for just TEN CENTS EACH! And they were all still factory-sealed – no used copies or returns here. I had taken a vinyl overdose…I was on a cut-out HIGH!!!

Here and there over the next two weeks,  I plunked down about $20 and added nearly TWO HUNDRED albums (yes, you read that right) to my collection, including the entire collection of mostly critically-acclaimed Raspberries (“Go All The Way“) albums (including their debut album, the one with the scratch and sniff sticker that amazingly still worked, and which thirty years later still has a hint of the scent in the album cover), most of singer-songwriter Henry Gross‘ (“Shannon“) output from the mid 70s, most of Paul Davis‘  (“I Go Crazy“) earlier albums, and a TON of other gems. The Raspberries albums – those were manna from heaven to me; I already had all but one of Eric Carmen‘s later (and usually marvelous) solo albums (most of which had also been purchased in cutout bins over the years – what a sad statement THAT is…), as I was a huge fan of his songwriting and his wondrous voice (is there anyone out there who doesn’t get chills from the piano-only version of  “Boats Against The Current” once they’ve heard it? I should think not…), and when I had gone back to try and find the band’s albums, they were out of print and used copies were selling for way too much money for the teenager I was at the the time.

Two months after they opened, with the initial allotment of cutouts all but gone or down to a few, they restocked, this time with stuff that was more recent, and they raised the price up to 50 cents each, but I still plunked down a bit of my hard earned cash for more great cutouts from Deodato, Peter Frampton, and a ton of others. Within a 90 day span that summer, I added almost 300 albums to my collection, and did so for under a total of $100 bucks…probably less than $50, actually, all things considered.

And the fact that at the time, I was working for the only record store in town – well, they got my money for the current stuff…the supposed irony was lost on me. Not that I didn’t spend money on cut outs at work…a year or so before I became an employee, they had a cutout sale and I spent about $50 on early, unsuccessful albums by Stacy Lattisaw, Roger Voudouris, and others at $3.99 a pop. But they were worth it.

Tapes are another matter. I’ve never been fond of cassettes. Kim is – most of her music collection is on cassette – but nearly 90% of my sizable collection of full album cassettes (as opposed to cassette singles, a different monster entirely, another topic for another day) came from the cutout bins. Tapes were just too easy to mess up, and I preferred making my own mix tapes from my records and CD’s rather than buy prerecorded ones. But there are a few gems. And the most valuable tape in my collection to me personally was found by chance one day in Lancaster when Woolworth‘s was still around. Again, I was working at the aforementioned record store (more about life at Buzzard’s Nest Records soon), and had walked up from the shopping center where it was to the one next door to get my haircut on my lunch hour, and on the way back, I noticed that Woolworth’s had a display with cassette cut outs, so I stopped in. And I may have let out a shriek when I saw one tape in particular, of an album from two or three years earlier that I had tried to special order at my place of employment only to be told it was out of print.

It was the debut album by singer Joseph Williams. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, you’re not a music buyer from the 1980s. The son of conductor John Williams, Joseph had finished in second or third place on the first season of Star Search, where he had been bested by singer Sam Harris. The solo album had been recorded right before that, and had bombed. At this point in time, he had recorded a song, “Save The Night“, for the soundtrack of the film “The Goonies“, and had just joined the Grammy-winning rock group Toto as their new lead singer. And I was a huge fan.  I plunked my 99 cents on the Woolworth counter and headed right back to work with it. Let there be no mistake about it –  it’s rather ordinary pop. But it’s GOOD pop, and I love the entire thing. And I would love to find a copy of the album on vinyl or CD because I haven’t yet digitized the tape and I worry about playing it sometimes because I’m afraid the cassette deck will eat it and it will be gone for good…I’m paranoid like that about cassettes, which is why I never got into them.

(Side Note – I just discovered while fact-checking during the writing of this blog piece that this prized possession has been re-released on CD – since 2002, OMG! – and I have just ordered it from Amazon.com. YAY! I won’t have to worry about the cassette any longer…PHEW!)

I don’t mind buying cut-out cassettes because you’re not spending much on them, and I’ve actually found a few things I never found on vinyl during their initial release on cassette in the cassette cut-out bins – like Jack Green‘s excellent 1980 album “Humanesque“, the self-titled debut album by Will And The Kill, Jesse Jaymes‘ “Thirty Footer In Your Face” featuring the inimitable single “Shake It (Like A White Girl)” and countless others. But I really DO need to digitize my collections soon – and Kim’s – because unlike vinyl and CD, cassettes tend to go bad after a few years. And unlike hits, you usually can never find cut-out bin gems again, except at a very high price on the secondary market.

Cut-out bins aren’t the only mecca for cheap fantastic music, though – promotional singles, albums, and CDs are good too…yet another great subject – we’ll talk about THAT mess another time…:-)